Legendary. Newport Folk Festival has long been associated with that modifier thanks to introducing audiences to musicians such as Joan Baez and infamous appearances by the likes of Bob Dylan. This year, as the event celebrated the 50th anniversary of one of its most historically significant performances, NFF lived up to its renown more so than any year since its second renaissance in the late 2000s.
From the beginning, we knew that 2015 would be looking back at 1965 and Dylan’s infamous “plugging in” incident. That’s why I decided to bring my dad along with me for his first return trip to the Folk Fest since, yep, 1965. He was there to hear Dylan go electric, but 50 years later, “electric folk” is something else entirely. “You know, this isn’t folk music,” he said to me halfway through the first day after taking in some of Leon Bridges and The Lone Bellow. It took him a minute to adjust to what the Festival had become since he’d last been there — it wasn’t even in the same venue back then — but once he came around, he found himself taken back by the scene and the sounds.
He witnessed the debut of Robert Ellis, Cory Chisel, and Jonny Fritz as Traveller; he heard Courtney Barnett redefine what a folk artist was with her left-hand guitar slaying; he became enraptured with Sufjan Stevens’ voice, even if he still can’t pronounce his name. Best of all, he got to witness Dawes, one of the first modern artists we shared appreciation for, take on some of Dylan’s classic songs with a jaw dropping lineup of guest performers. There was a nice bit of 50 year symmetry to that.
It was plenty amusing, and just a bit sweet, watching him schmooze backstage with managers and Felice brothers, and seeing him post up near the Fort Stage entrance to try and sneak a glimpse of some megastar coming to the stage. And I’m glad to have shared it all with him. But that’s not exactly what made this year’s Folk Fest so spectacular.
Even for those not there with a family member making their big return to Fort Adams, 2015 will go down as a Newport Folk Festival for the ages. No other year has featured the surprising mixture of fresh talent like Bridges and Barnett, scene favorites like Tallest Man on Earth and Langhorne Slim, left-field bookings like Tommy Stinson and J. Mascis, and rare gets like Stevens and Roger Waters. On top of all that, for the first time ever, there were true surprise acts. Sure, bands like Spirit Family Reunion and Deer Tick have shown up unannounced in years past, but this time around, festival producer Jay Sweet actually put acts on the schedule and didn’t tell anyone who they were.
That includes the final performance of the year, the star-studded ’65 Revisited Dylan tribute. But before you could even get to that, you witnessed My Morning Jacket returning to the Fort Stage and staying there to backup Waters for what became a truly iconic set. The next day, for a mere half an hour, James Taylor was given the chance to make up for lost time 46 years laters. A mind-boggling surprise appearance by one of the biggest rock acts in the world followed by the return of a classic voice in American sound. Nothing can bespeak to the current state of Newport Folk better than that.
But I’ll try anyway. I’m beginning to wonder when NFF will slow down, as it’s only gotten better each year I’ve attended. This year already seems insurmountable, what with its nearly flawless execution and a lineup that still looks stunning even after it happened. That’s for Sweet to figure out, however, and ours is the task of looking back on the Newport Folk Festival that was, and the legend it will become.